Liberal Reform and Industrial Relations: J H Whitley (1866-1935)

Studies in Liberal history have burgeoned over the past twenty-five years but a number of lacunae have remained. One such was a study of J H Whitley, eponymous link with the Whitley Councils and the last Liberal Speaker of the House of Commons. Whitley’s family are now rectifying the omission. Dr Chris Cook, the doyen of searchers and publishers of political sources noted that Whitley’s papers “relating mainly to his .... period as Speaker” were in the hands of his son and that “[I]t is believed that no other private papers exist.”1 Happily this proved to be wrong and in October 2011 Whitley’s grandson, John Whitley, deposited the whole archive with the University of Huddersfield as the nearest academic institution to Whitley’s home and political base in Halifax.2 Following on from the establishment of the Whitley archive an annual J H Whitley lecture was established in 2012. The 2014 lecturer was John Bercow, the then Speaker and a very different personality to Whitley.3 Now a book of essays on Whitley has been published as a forerunner to a full biography.

Inevitably in a book of twelve separate essays there is a certain amount of repetition but essentially it gives a sympathetic picture of a little known Liberal figure and is a useful contribution to the history of a traumatic period in Liberal history.

It is evident that John Henry Whitley, known to family and friends as Harry Whitley, would have fitted very easily into the present day party. His was a practical local Liberalism built on local voluntary action and a seven year apprenticeship on the Halifax County Borough Council, continuing his final term of office whilst MP for the town. He established a seaside camp at Filey for poor boys from Halifax and often took charge of the camps himself. The camps continued long after his death and were taken over by later members of the Whitley family. Also, together with his brother, Alfred, and other family members, Harry Whitley established the Halifax Guild of Help, an early co-ordinating body for the voluntary sector, out of which eventually developed the Councils of Voluntary Service of today. He was reluctant to become an MP, refusing the nomination on a number of occasions until finally accepting it for the 1900 “Khaki” general election. Such was his local popularity that, in the two member constituency, with the pro-Boer war Conservative topping the poll, Whitley took the second seat displacing the sitting Liberal Member. The whole Whitley family was involved in Liberal politics and in municipal and voluntary service and one gathers that it was a sense of duty that impelled him into taking on the Liberal nomination and what appears to have been to him the distasteful task of spending months in London rather than in Halifax.4 Also investing Whitley’s Liberalism was his strong non-conformist religion, being a lifelong Congregationalist, a denomination one of whose key tenets was the independence of each local church. I recall that the late Donald Wade, a former Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party, was a leading Congregationalist.

The Whitley family were mill owners but, unusually for Halifax where wool was the dominant textile, they were cotton mills. Harry Whitley gave his responsibilities to the family business as the reason for being unable to accept the Liberal association’s nomination at the 1895 election. 

The one apparently discordant note in the Whitley family’s otherwise consistent life was despatch of Harry Whitley, and, one by one, his younger brothers to the relatively new public school, Clifton College, in Bristol. Harry’s father chose the school because, “differences of opinion were tolerated and a boy had to make his way by character and industry.” John Hargreaves points out that another practical reason was perhaps that Harry’s mother had died when he was three and the lack of a maternal presence in a busy household could perhaps in part be substituted by going away to a public school that proclaimed a liberal Christian heritage.5 As a student and sportsman, as in many other spheres, Harry Whitley was capable though not outstanding but in the school’s debating society he was a confident and articulate advocate of radical causes, few of which, however, secured a majority in the final vote! He retained a lifelong commitment to the school and supported a number of fundraising initiatives whilst Speaker.

As a back bench MP, Whitley pursued positive Liberal policies to alleviate poverty and poor housing conditions. To deal with latter he proposed the taxation of land values which, he argued, would inhibit land hoarding and encourage building. He supported Home Rule for Ireland and backed women’s suffrage. His first step on the path of promotion was his appointment as a Whip in 1907 - a relatively relaxed task one would assume given a Liberal majority of almost 130. In 1910 he made a big change, moving from the Whips office - the heart of the political battle - to become Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means, distant from political partisanship. Unfortunately, in dealing with period, Clyde Binfield gives no indication of how or why he made this shift or how a year later he became Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means.6 In this latter post he had to deputise for Mr Speaker Lowther who was often absent.

Whilst in the latter post an unexpected crisis arrived for the Liberal party. In January 1915, in the middle of the First World War, the Chief Whip, Percy Illingworth, another Yorkshire MP and from all reports a superb occupant of the post died suddenly from typhoid fever as a result, it was said, of eating a bad oyster. Asquith turned to Whitley to take over but he refused. In his letter to Asquith Whitley says that he thinks that neither his health nor his temperament were up the demands of the job, but John Hargreaves states that Whitley told Oliver, his youngest son, that he did not feel himself sufficiently partisan to resume the role of disciplinarian.7 It is also possible that he saw his future as succeeding to the Speakership rather than in party politics. His refusal led indirectly to the Liberals’ poor parliamentary performance during the first Labour government in 1924 as Asquith was unable to find a long-term occupant as Chief Whip until his close colleague Vivian Phillips accepted. However, Phillips’ antipathy to Lloyd George made it difficult for the party to present a united front. The poor performances of the Liberal and Labour Whips led to the collapse of the Labour government and the Liberal Party never regained its parliamentary strength.8

Whitley became Speaker in April 1921 and held the position until June 1928. Although not a particularly long tenure he had a number of unique and difficult political events to deal with, including the Anglo-Irish Treaty which removed the Republic of Ireland MPs from the House of Commons, the first Labour Government in such a minority government that it was not even the leading party in parliament, the presence of women MPs and the General Strike of 1926. As Speaker, Whitley himself was unusual: first, he was from the North, second he was a textile manufacturer rather than the usual lawyer or member of the landed gentry and, as it turned out he was the last Liberal Speaker. The general assessment of him was that if not outstanding he was certainly effective.9 In particular he had decided to treat disruptive Labour MPs, particularly the “Red Clydeside” Members with a “long rein” and this was far from pleasing the more respectful Members who accused him of being too easy going. The objective fact was that his strategy worked in that for the most part the House functioned and was rarely disrupted. He was, in effect, following the same liberal methods as he had employed in the Halifax mill in dealing with labour relations and acknowledging the role of trade unions.10 In the midst of the difficulties of dealing with a boisterous House there were the particular difficulties of the initially split Liberal Party. One would have expected Whitley’s politics to have placed him alongside the Asquithians rather than supporting the Lloyd George faction but at the 1918 general election he had accepted the Coalition Liberal label even though he had not received the Coalition “coupon”.

Perhaps Whitley will be remembered chiefly for his role in the formation of the joint industrial councils that bear his name. The Whitley Councils emerged from the First World War and the government’s policy of planning for post-war reconstruction, not least the Asquith government’s concern about industrial disputes affecting the war effort detrimentally. Whitley was the Deputy Speaker and Asquith appointed him to chair it. His experience in managing a large cotton mill and maintaining harmony there was valuable industrial experience for the new committee. The committee produced five reports during 1917 and 1918, the first of which is usually thought of as the Whitley Report.11 Paradoxically, few industrial councils survived much beyond the war but the civil service saw the value to their work and took up the idea. Also the unions were not enthusiastic about the Whitley concept of works committee and the response to these was somewhat disappointing.12 Nonetheless, the fact that industrial l councils and works councils survived at all, not least within the National Health Service right up to 2004 has gave the Whitley name a continuing resonance.

One of the conditions on which Whitley agreed to accept the Speakership in 1921 was that he would not have to take the traditional peerage on retirement. He had always been opposed to the existence of the House of Lords and he was determined to be consistent. In 1928 when the time came to retire he personally asked the King to be excused appointment to the Lords. A somewhat different attitude from that of John Bercow!

He was clearly happy on retirement to return to Halifax and to pick up his voluntary work there but, despite his health concerns, his wish for a quieter life, he took on two further onerous tasks. In 1929 he accepted appointment as chairman of the Royal Commission on Labour in India, travelling a great deal and eventually producing a report sympathetic to the need for regulation to improve working conditions and pay for Indian men and women. In 1930 his last national appointment was as Chairman of the Board of Governors of the BBC. John Reith was the powerful and opinionated Director-General of this burgeoning corporation and was fearful of Whitley’s appointment. Whitley was determined from the beginning to establish as good working relationship with Reith and he achieved that to Reith’s satisfaction, arguably by being too supportive of Reith’s hegemonic and somewhat narrow views on the duty of the BBC to safeguard moral values. Whitley died in office at the BBC in 1935.

This book is a useful addition to the literature on a troubled period in Liberal history and provides a valuable insight into the varied life and times of one of the lesser Liberal figures whose political life spanned the whole period from 1900 to 1928. I look forward to the forthcoming biography of Harry Whitley.

1. Sources in British Political History 1900-1951, Volume 4: A Guide to the Private Papers of Members of Parliament: L-Z, Chris Cook, Macmillan, 1977

2. Details of the archive can be found at

3. I gave the 2017 lecture on “The myths and lessons of the 1924 Labour government”; a version of the lecture appeared in the Journal of Liberal History 100, Autmun 2018.

4. Professor Keith Laybourn chapter, Liberal Reform and Industrial Relations: J H Whitley etc, p68.

5. Ibid Dr J A Hargreaves chapter, p9.

6. Ibid, Professor Clyde Binfield chapter, p53.

7. Ibid, Hargreaves chapter, p26.

8. M Meadowcroft, The 1924 Labour government and the failure of the whips, Journal of Liberal History 100, Autumn 2018.

9. Professor Richard Toye chapter, Liberal Reform and Industrial Relations: J H Whitley etc, p109.

10. Ibid, p110.

11. Professor Greg Patmore chapter, ibid p87. (Officially the Whitley Committee on Relations between Employers and the Employed.)

12. Ibid pp90-91.

Liberal Reform and Industrial Relations: J H Whitley (1866-1935) - Halifax Radical and Speaker of the House of Commons, ed. John A Hargreaves, Keith Laybourn and Richard Toye, Routledge,  2018, ISBN 978 1 1382939 8 4